It only takes one bad crop to destroy a farm, and decades of discrimination in the USDA’s loan process has sunk many a farm.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will be the first to admit this dark part of its history and is trying to end the cycle by rooting out discrimination among its own staff and by making amends with farmers in cases that have lasted since the Civil Rights movement.
But for many Hispanic farmers, and many female farmers, the process of amends has just been another insult in a long history of discrimination.
“I’m just one of thousands,” said David Cantu, a Hispanic farmer and rancher in San Juan, Texas, in a phone interview.
Cantu’s story rings along a similar line to what other farmers have faced. He and his father applied for a loan ahead of the planting season. They were approved, but the money was delayed.
They prepared the land in the meantime, but when the money, which they needed to pay for irrigation, finally came, it was too late.
“By that time the damage had been done—we lost the crop,” Cantu said.
They had planted corn, and in the south, if corn crops don’t get enough water, they can develop a chemical that gradually lowers its market value.
“We lost probably $300,000 to $400,000,” Cantu said.
A lost crop has a ripple effect. Farmers rely on profits to repay their loans, but if the loans come late—as in the case of Cantu and many other Hispanic farmers—they not only take a massive loss, but also go into debt from being unable to repay the money they now owe.
Once they’re in debt, when the next planting season comes along, they can be denied the loans needed to keep the farm going, and a farm that has been passed down through generations is then lost.
“That’s the legacy that Hispanic farmers leave to their children—their land and whatever they put together in their lifetime. The USDA has taken that from them,” Cantu said.
On May 4, the USDA took one of the first steps in addressing a long history of discrimination. Representatives met with farmers and ranchers in El Paso, Texas, to offer a streamlined process to resolve the discrimination cases.
Every Hispanic and female farmer or rancher who was denied a USDA loan due to discrimination between 1981 and 2000 is being offered up to $50,000.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the settlements were part of his “commitment to mend USDA’s troubled civil rights record,” and the USDA is “correcting our past errors, learning from our mistakes, and outlining definitive action to ensure there will be no missteps in the future,” according to the USDA official blog.
Many farmers and ranchers, however, see the settlement in a different light, and a group of Hispanic farmers and ranchers filed a suit against the USDA, regarding its settlements.
“It is, in our view, a very cynical attempt by USDA and the Department of Justice to pretend they are turning the page or closing a chapter on discrimination,” said Stephen Hill, attorney for the Hispanic farmers who filed the suit against the USDA, in a phone interview.
The main point of contention is that Hispanics and women are being offered significantly less individually than what was offered to either African-American or Native American farmers and ranchers.
In the 1999 Pigford I case, with African-Americans farmers and ranchers, each person was offered two tracks. Track A gave a $50,000 settlement. Track B gave them as much in damages as they could prove they lost. The highest amount paid was $13 million. A second round of settlements was then made for anyone who missed the first one, dubbed Pigford II. This offered up to $50,000 in Track A, and up to $250,000 in Track B.
Native American farmers and ranchers were given similar settlements in the Keepseagle case, which offers up to $50,000 in Track A, and up to $250,000 in Track B.
“In the case of Hispanic farmers, they rather acutely do not refer to it as Track A or Track B,” Hill said. “They refer to it as Tier I and Tier II.”
For Hispanic and female farmers and ranchers, they can recover up to $50,000 in Tier I, and a flat $50,000 under Tier II.
Yet the case is complicated. They are being offered less money individually, but more money overall.
“We believe the processes for Hispanic and women farmers are quite similar to those used for black and Native American farmers,” said a USDA spokesperson in an e-mail interview.
A total of $1.33 billion was made available for Hispanic and female farmers and ranchers—more than twice the funds made available to Native American farmers—and $80 million more than what was made available for African-Americans in the Pigford II settlement.
“Additionally, the amount of debt relief for Hispanic and women farmers is fair and reasonable,” stated the USDA spokesperson, noting that claimants are being offered up to $180 million in debt relief, twice that of the Keepseagle settlement.
For many Hispanic farmers, however, the $50,000 being offered is far from compensating what they lost.Noe Obregon from Pearsall, Texas, lost close to $4 million due to alleged loan discrimination from the USDA. He also lost his family farm, which was started by his grandfather.
The $50,000 being offered “wouldn’t get us nowhere,” Obregon said in a phone interview. “Compared to the losses we have had in so many years, how does $50,000 justify a million-dollar farm?”
“We’re just being given the short end of the stick,” Obregon said. “I would just like to see justice served, and to be treated like Americans. We’re U.S. citizens. The only thing is we’re Hispanics.”